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What is a propaganda poster?

Propaganda posters, like all types of propaganda, are tools used to influence people and sway them toward a certain idea or position. You've probably heard the word propaganda before, and it may bring to mind things like Nazis or the Cold War. While these events were certainly associated with propaganda, it's good to keep in mind that propaganda can take many forms and isn't always negative.

What is propaganda?

Propaganda is simply communication intended to influence an audience. Merriam-Webster [defines ]propaganda as: “ the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person; ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause.” In the broadest sense you could think of advertising and public relations as propaganda.

Think about how much advertising you're exposed to in daily life: TV commercials, online ads, billboards, social media posts —all are examples of propaganda. This doesn't mean they're manipulative or dishonest (though they could be), but rather that they're trying to convince you of something: Usually that a product is great and you should buy it.

What is a propaganda poster?

X Marks the Spot Propaganda Poster

Similarly, propaganda posters were often used by governments during wartime as a way to communicate a certain idea, feeling, or position to the public. Images or slogans in propaganda posters are often created with the aim of inciting emotion. They can be used to promote a cause or idea. At their best, they can make people believe in a great cause and take up their civic duty to support it. At their worst, they can be used to incite fear and anger, and sometimes even breed hatred. They have been employed by governments throughout history — including the United States, whose propaganda campaign during World War II is well known—to stir up nationalistic fervor and unite the country against an enemy.

Since the 19th century, propaganda posters have been used for good and evil purposes. Famous examples include American World War I recruiting posters that promoted patriotism and included slogans like “I Want You for U.S. Army”; Soviet Union WWII posters that depicted soldiers as heroes; Nazi Germany recruitment poster that showed an athletic youth representing the ideal Aryan man; the Vietnamese “Uncle Ho” poster from the mid-1900s; and Chinese communist government’s 1950s poster promoting traditional family values.

Like other forms of propaganda, a poster that’s meant to promote a certain message will almost always combine words and images. An effective poster is often one that doesn’t say much at all—the image itself is the most important part of the message. Propaganda posters may also contain symbols, which are common in propaganda because they elicit an emotional response from the reader or viewer. Symbols can be anything that represents an idea to us, such as an elephant for the Republican Party or a donkey for the Democratic Party.

Propaganda posters are an important part of our cultural heritage, a fascinating snapshot of the past and tell us what people cared about at the time and offer a wonderful window into history.

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